A long Road to Travel

In recent years, the Irish electorate has legalised gay marriage, has a gay leader, has overwhelmingly voted in favour of repealing the Eight Amendment’ and generally moved out from being under the direction of the church in political and social discourse [the idea of a bishop McQuaid figure now dictating law seems a feature that is consigned to Irish history]. So are we now a modern sophisticated and just society?

Most societies are evolving quickly through recent decades with greater globalisation and technological advance and the instant communication of ideas that that allows. Just two lifetimes ago would take us back to the mid-19th century and a world of class divisions, social injustices and servitude we that would shock from our perspective. There can be a self-congratulatory easing of urgency, when some much needed social injustices are addressed, but others clearly need our attention now.

The injustices we are conscious of are not normally as challenging as those that are so ingrained in our belief systems, that we often do not see the issue. Today, we could point to the lives of refugees seeking asylum here as something that will likely cause the shame of the past industrial schools in the future.

The suprising surge of votes for Peter Casey in the Presidential election highlight some social issues that need urgent consideration. Two days after the results on RTE Radio 1 some ‘perfectly decent people’ interviewed in the midlands described ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘saying what everyone was thinking’ as strong points of Casey’s campaign for the presidency. Meanwhile, back in the RTE studio pundits were suggesting that political strategists will jostle for the new position of Ireland’s far right, for Ireland’s Trump and Brexit vote.

Peter Casey was congratulated most by these people for ‘telling it like it is’ in relation to Travellers and those on welfare, and for tapping into the frustration of people who felt left behind and could not say anything because of political correctness

People I know and like very well have presented some of the following arguments around this issue They will argue that travellers are the ones who want to remain separated from the rest of society

They will see a reluctance to contribute and a willingness to stay on welfare and take a house and neglect its environment, while others can’t get a house, as typical.

They will worry about travellers coming on their land ‘trespassing on their private property, and doing damage to its environs, or perhaps stealing their goods.

They will have no issue with public houses closing their doors when a traveller funeral is taking place, because although they are not ‘racist like’, they know that ‘they’ will drink, fight and cause damage to the establishment.

They probably won’t bat an eyelid when a minister for housing and the environment addresses some of his constituents about other constituents not getting housed in their area.

They will, it seems, vote in very large and surprising numbers for someone who during earlier campaign debates seemed very much uncertain as to whether his 2% polling meant he should just pull out; all this was overlooked because he said what needed to be said about ‘them’. This was a man whose only other previous political foray was an attempt to run for the Seanad in 2016 when he received 14 of the required 133 votes.

You may well be reading this and agreeing with some of the sentiments about Travellers set out above, but you don’t consider yourself to be a racist, you are a reasonable person who is just being realistic, right?

Consider how you would feel about a group of whites, in the southern states of the USA, talking about African Americans in the same manner. Re-read everything I have outlined above and change the context to whites talking about black Americans moving into their neighbourhoods, and decreasing property prices, and increasing crimes, statistically.

Imagine if you read that a recent survey found that…wait for this one…just 9% of these southern bigots would be ok with someone in their family marrying an African American. Yes, well that is the thing, I don’t know what the figure is for those particular bigots, but I do know that 9% is the number of Irish people who would be ok with a member of their family marrying a traveller [cite this].

This is shocking, really grotesque and something that must be addressed now. That any group of humans would feel this way about marrying an individual from another group is about as prejudiced as you can find.

So let’s step back a little and try to find why these attitudes may seem reasonable to reasonable people, and yet are evidently so horrific.

Do you know, or have you known a child in your life? Have you watched their wonder and curiosity develop from fairly blank social slates as they play in infanthood with any other child without a consideration for that other toddlers’ social status or political preferences.

There is a realisation that occurs to some of these children as their years advance, maybe about 5 or 6 years of age and again at 7 and 8, the realisation is that they are different; and by different it is clear that they and those whom they love are lesser. This is conveyed to them in the eyes of others. To see that realisation in the eyes of a child is one of the most upsetting things you can see. It is often received from a look of disdain to a beggar or a quick move away from a traveller or a dismissive glance by an adult at your family benefiting from any welfare.

In the case of Irish travellers all of the above will probably apply, as well as a lack of welcome in your school, a largely accepted level of mocking by your peers within the school and perhaps also by some around your family who have learned the same lessons and are willing you to accept these differences.

People are people, this is not idealism, it is mere logic and science, we have mapped our essence, our DNA, there is bugger all differences, and in the fractions of a percent difference that are there, there is more variation within Africa than in the rest of the globe. If you need to belong by seeing ‘others’, then there are groups that are objectively different on a physical and cognitive level, these are what we know as animals. In a global and certainly cosmic sense, the fact that some people believe that those same people might be in some way better than ‘other’ people is in equal measure idiotic and dangerous.

When we consider this developing sense of self and all of its accompanying exclusion it is perhaps little wonder that there is social discord, in truth it is surprising that the discord is so small. The root of the issue sits at the many tables of reasonable people who will make sweeping statements about travellers in front of their own children – or, indeed anything that doesn’t focus on seeing people as individuals free from stereotyping. The minor social adaption issues mentioned above are all treatable with adherence to the concept of law and its enforcement. The major issue is making people feel excluded in the first instance.

These same people will often discuss welfare recipients in a similar unsettled and unsettling tone.

They see themselves as represented by the worker who gets up early – Peter Casey and Leo’s friend. The sense being that as you pay your taxes, this gives you, or buys you the right to complain about others who do not. This infantile thinking assumes all people can live by themselves and do not need the help of others …. The notion of the self-made men, the playground of libertarians

Well, go ahead, put a newborn baby in a field sometime with no human contact, and see how it gets on. Live your life without using a road or a school or a hospital or any shared human knowledge, mathematics for example or the underpinnings of how a building or a bridge supports its weight. Understand that a society is made up of many people and someday you may need to sleep-in, because you are mentally or physically ill or unfortunate or old or young or in school or college. Understand that your family members will progress through life stages as well. Understand that you do benefit from university research from peaceful cooperation and law enforcement and ultimately from the notion that you are a part of society.

Societies are incredibly complex things that have a vast array of groups and groups’ desires and are encased in all of their preceding histories. There are no simple answers. There never has been someone who just says it like it is, those are either idiots or more often liars who have found the easiest way to gain popularity and subsequently, power is to appeal to and enlist our potential for intellectual laziness. Our desire at the end of a day to say ‘it’s all their fault that my life is crap; and I have no interest in anyone that says it’s complicated’.

A political class cavorted with a financial, business and property class like schoolchildren with a crush, and cowered in front of angry international finance, this is why you suffered, it has nothing to do with welfare recipients or immigrants, and it most certainly has nothing to do with the Traveller community.

It seems to me there was little intentional malice in Peter Casey’s campaign, just a lack of thought. It is of the greatest importance that Irish politicians do not see this as a template for political success, and that we collectively acknowledge our quite startling prejudice when it comes to Travellers. Societies are very complex and any idea wave that gains popular momentum can push their centres and their extremes in a given direction. If it becomes politically acceptable and then political capital to make comments about ‘them’ and to scapegoat the ‘other’, someone at the fringe interprets this as a call to violence. Tragedy strikes and some kid trying to reconcile why they are the ‘other’ is now the victim of violent crime. At the reasonable persons’ table, these acts will be scorned if and when they happen, but, now, they are being enabled.

This is an opportunity to address our national practice of bigotry towards the Traveller community and, to concurrently avoid falling into simple right wing, wrong soundbites. For this, Peter Casey’s unwitting campaign will hopefully be seen as an end and not a beginning, we can be much better than that.

Martin O'Dea

About Martin O'Dea

Martin O’Dea lives in Dublin, Ireland. His interests and writings are varied and include areas relating to human development through technological and biological advances, as well as the economics and politics of rapid technological advance. His first novel is 'Beyond the Subjectivity Trap'.